July 18, 2010

Towards the summit of Kilimanjaro

Steve Young

(info about Steve Young)

With a true fighting spirit

Thomas Kieller

Steve Young: Running with the ball.

Athletic quarterback, Steve delivered many times exciting passes and made staggering runs to the delight of the San Francisco 49ers supporters. He accumulated an impressive 4,239 yards by the ground and, to this data, one must add the 43 running-touchdowns he made which places him first concerning this subject for his position. With his vision, his comprehension of the game and his passing abilities, he gained 33,124 yards by air as the seasons went by. He was simply an electrifying quarterback who combined with success passing and running. The numerous performances he realized as a starter led him to be named most valuable player of the National Football League (NFL) in 1992 and 1994 as well as for the Super Bowl XXIX. His teammates will probably never forget that this athlete native of Salt Lake City was truly intense during the matches and also during practices. He never did things halfway even when he was a substitute player. It was probably due to his determination and desire to perform. Anyway, the number 8 was a team player and he understood well the purpose of each one in order that the team with the red and gold uniform would be dominant on the field. The waiting, the bad results in his early career and his progress through the years led him to appreciate a lot the victory of the Niners at the 1995 Super Bowl in the Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami where he was brilliant. He delivered six passing-touchdowns which is a record for a final game. His style was captivating and no one knew what strategy he will use to make the ball move forward, but one thing was sure, the American player always gave everything he got. A quite uncommon playing style in the NFL! Oh yes, Steve was an amazing player to watch.

The phone-interview took place on June 11, 2010 at 14:10 when Steve was in California, United States.

Tough road to success

Thomas Kieller: Steve, you learned your job as a quarterback the hard way. You started your career with the Los Angeles Express of the late United States Football League where you played two years. L.A. was not doing so well. After this episode, you were drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and you played there also two years and it was tough again. What did you learn from these two experiences as a person and as a football player?

Steve Young: First, I had a tremendous amount of success in high school and in college and suddenly when I started my professional career with those two teams, I lost way more than I lost in the past. No one likes to lose and, of course, the point in football is not that. However, in every competition there is losing. So, people can talk about it and in any flowery manner but there are ways that makes losing useful. I have learned it. Those ways are that you never give an inch and that you take every bit of positive criticism and critiques to prevent it to happen again. You can take just as much or may be more from a loss than from a win. I was forced to deal with that and it made me tougher. It made me understand better the notions of respect and honour when the things went well later in my career.

Thomas: So, it was useful those four years with L.A. and Tampa Bay?

Steve (says with a joyful manner): It was awful but useful.

Thomas (laughs when he hears Steve’s last answer): After Tampa Bay, you were traded to the San Francisco 49ers. Joe Montana was already the starter quarterback and we know he was doing quite well. So, compared to Los Angeles and Tampa Bay, the situation in San Francisco was completely different. You were the back-up quarterback. How did you manage your limited time on the field?

Steve: I really focused on my preparation even though I knew that I will probably not be on the field. However, I tried to prepare myself as if I was going to play and I think this attitude was frustrating for the people around me. In a way, I was pushy and I was relentless but I did not know how else to do it. I was not a very good player watching. So, the limited time I did play, it was always positive. I cannot remember a time where I went in for Joe who was hurt or some other situation and it did not do pretty well because I over-prepared myself for so long.

Thomas: So, you pushed a lot?

Steve: Well, I’m sure that you can call it a lot of different things but yes you can describe it like this, I was pushy.

Runner and passer

Thomas: As a quarterback, you were an electrifying runner. We can remember many examples such as the great escape against the Minnesota Vikings. And yes, it gave good vibe to the viewer. What made you so effective as a rushing quarterback?

Steve: Well, I grew up in a triple option formation like a wishbone and it gave the quarterback some running possibilities. When I was younger, I ran the ball a lot. So, that’s one of the things. Also, I’m just a fast runner and that makes a big difference. So, when I learned to throw the ball with efficiency that became quite dangerous for the defence.

Thomas: Did you do some specific training to gain speed and agility?

Steve: I really did not do things specifically for running. I think there were natural abilities to be honest with you. I was born fast.

Thomas: Defensive ends, defensive tackles, nose guards and linebackers were guys who wanted to take you down like any quarterback. It’s their job. Is it tough to be a running quarterback and to face huge NFL players? After a run, the next play you may have to pass…

Steve: Yes, it is a transition and it is why I think you don’t see it very often in the NFL. There are not a lot of guys who play like me. I think it’s a tough transition to do play after play, but you know I think it was natural for me so I never really felt awkward about it; to run the ball and to throw it in the next play. Whatever moved the ball forward was fine with me.

Thomas: With your athletic abilities, did you really feel the need to run the ball?

Steve: You need the discipline. The job of quarterback is to throw the ball in the NFL. That’s the job; it’s not to run it. So, you have to have the discipline to only run when you have no choice. That’s the art. If you just ran around as a quarterback in the NFL, you would not succeed. You have to be able to throw it.

Thomas: At the beginning of your career, you were more a running quarterback… How did you learn the next step to become a better quarterback? You were well surrounded with 49ers head coach George Seifert and offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan. Did they make you change your style of playing?

Steve: No. First, I think they wanted a quarterback who moves the ball forward. If I go back to my earlier time, I was not that proficient at throwing. So, I moved the ball the way I could, but I knew and they knew that in the long term, running was not going to work. However, when I was younger, running gave me the cushion to learn the real job which is to throw it. Running was a nice option for me while I learned the art of throwing. Some quarterbacks, they don’t learn the ability of throwing the ball quickly enough and they don’t play. I’m kind of grateful that I had the ability to run because it helped me in my career...

Thomas: How many years did it take for you to become, if I can say, an effective running quarterback with on-the-move passing ability?

Steve: It depends on where you are, but it will take you a handful of years to really master to be a quarterback in the NFL. Even when you play well as a young player like Matt Ryan or other players, you really don’t know it until you have played four to five years.

Thomas: But what made you change from a running quarterback? Did you have some advice from someone?

Steve: No Thomas, I knew from the very beginning that I could not succeed in the long term while running around. It’s not the job; you have to learn to throw the ball. So the whole time I was running, I was thinking I better learn to throw the ball because it is not going to last.

Super Bowl success

Thomas: We talked about the beginning of your career and your evolution as a quarterback over many years. In a way, it led to the 1994-95 season, the 49ers won the Super Bowl as you and your teammates crushed the San Diego Chargers by the score of 49-26. That day, you established a record, a performance of six touchdowns. What did this accomplishment represent for you at that time and was it your greatest accomplishment?

Steve: Hardily yes. I think to the world, it is my greatest accomplishment. It was mostly important because for the 49ers in that era, there was no success short of a Super Bowl. No matter what you accomplished, no matter how close you got and no matter how great you were; to win the Super Bowl was the standard. So, yes winning the Super Bowl meant maybe twice as much for me as others just because of the person I replaced in Joe Montana and the expectation to play in San Francisco was so great. It was definitely a great thing.

Surpassing oneself

Thomas: The next year, in an exhibition match (August 13, 1995), you scrambled for an 8-yard gain without your helmet! Steve, it was a preseason match against the San Diego Chargers! Do you have to give everything on every play? It is in your spirit to play like this?

Steve (laughs): I say yes. I think it’s just my nature and it’s my instinct when I played. Probably, there is a fear of failure and you know that drives people. You can call it different things but certainly I want to play my best and I never wanted to take everything for granted and I never really wasted a moment when I was on the field as exemplified by that in a preseason game. When I played, I knew that I needed to achieve and I could not waste much time.

Thomas: Just for the record, do you remember the reaction of your teammates and the coaching staff following this play?

Steve (laughs): Don’t ever do that again!

Thomas: Where did you get this mentality of a fighter?

Steve: I think I was born with it. Also, my dad was a pretty tough guy. Of course, there are things which happened in my life that accentuated it but I believe most of it came within me.

Thomas: Your dad was a tough player… and a tough guy?

Steve: A tough player and a tough guy, yes. He played in college.

Thomas: I read somewhere that you liked the playing style of Dallas ex-quarterback Roger Staubach. Why did you like in him?

Steve: He was a hard working type of guy, played hard, he ran sometimes with the ball, treated people well; he won and played for great teams. So, in many ways, I tried to follow in his footsteps.

Thomas: Like him, you made some great comebacks in your career such as the one against the Green Bay Packers in a playoff match (January 3, 1999). You threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens and your team won 30-27. Everybody did his job and you denied Green Bay and Brett Favre to go to a third straight Super Bowl appearance. To measure yourself to the best, is it worth it for all the work you have put in?

Steve (with a decisive tone): Yeah! I think it’s why I really appreciated replacing Joe Montana. I realized very quickly that I was very lucky to replace him because I was going to find out how good I can really be. I could have played in a lot of other places and I really never found that out. As an athlete, I think, the greatest benefit you have in competition is to see how good you can be. Not how many people you can beat but just how you do it! What kind of artist can you be as an athlete? I was grateful for that.

Thomas (says right away): And football can help you with that. There is a lot of brute force, a lot of strategies… What is football for you?

Steve: It’s the ultimate human dynamic laboratory. There are a lot of human interactions among fifty guys. Everybody has to be on the same page. Everyone has different jobs and not everyone touches the ball. There is such a unique dynamic in the game. To be really good at it, you cannot do it alone. I believe that football is the best sport metaphor for life. You can take a lot of metaphors from sports but there has to be a way more that you can take from football than from any other sport.

Last words

Thomas: Yes, football is a team sport… However, I have to say that at the end of your 15 season career in the NFL, you had your share of moments. One could see that you finished with some great stats, three Super Bowls, your jersey number retired, one Super Bowl MVP, two NFL MVPs and other titles. The list is long! Looking back at your career, what do you remember?

Steve: I remember the challenges. Of course, I remember all the events you just mentioned, all the awards and all the accomplishments I won. Nobody starts that way. So, I tried to be a pretty humble guy. I remember my roots and recognize that. None of the accomplishments came easily! And none of them was done alone. The great memories I have is the guys that were my best friends on the team. The guys like Brent Jones who supported me and the players that I played with are the memories which stick in my mind.

Thomas (while smiling): Do you miss the grass of Candlestick Park and the atmosphere of this stadium?

Steve (laughs): Yes, very much. You can’t replace that in your life. Of course, you don’t need this to be successful or happy, but it was engaging. I found that life can be even better, but it’s not the same. It’s not like being on the field when it’s third down and ten yards to do in the fourth quarter. Those times are gone...

Thomas: And now you are doing a different thing. Do you still enjoy a good football match and the intensity which goes along?

Steve (with enthusiasm): Oh yes, I do enjoy watching. However, I’m chasing my kids around so it’s now tougher to watch all the time but I do enjoy it quite a lot.

Thomas: That’s good. Thanks Steve for sharing your experiences!

Steve: Thanks and take care!